Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) are no longer just basic interfaces; but are an integral component of the user experience. From AI powered chatbots that assist a user, to virtual reality experiences, there have been significant innovations in this field. Globally, the number of patent applications published in the field of GUIs has nearly doubled in the past three years, with over 20,000 published in 2023 alone. India has also seen a significant rise in Graphical User Interface (GUI) patent filings, with a 200% increase in the past five years. While GUIs have an aesthetic aspect, they also often involve underlying technical contributions in the field of computer-related inventions.
Legal challenges associated with computer-related inventions:
Many jurisdictions exclude computer programmes per se, business methods, and abstract ideas from patentability. Section 3(k) of the Indian Patent Act, 1970 also states that “a mathematical or business method or a computer programme per se or algorithms” cannot be patented.
The Delhi High Court, in the case of Microsoft Vs Assistant Controller (C.A.(COMM.IPD-PAT) 29/2022) recently addressed the issue of the patentability of GUIs. The patent application was directed towards enhancing the security of accessing sub-locations of network locations and streamlining the user experience by using two different cookies. The Indian Patent Office refused the patent application stating that the invention is at the user-interface level and, hence non-patentable. On appeal, the Delhi High Court overturned the order of the Indian Patent Office by finding that the improvement in the user experience results from technical advancements at various levels in the computer architecture. The Delhi High Court held “The subject patent significantly enhances user experience; however, this improvement is a result of the technical solution it provides at a deeper level within the network. This solution enables more secure and efficient and streamlined access to network locations and sub-locations, demonstrating the impact of the underlying technical advancements. Therefore, it would be incorrect to exclude the claimed invention on the basis that it is limited to user-interface.”
The United Kingdom (UK) Patents Court in Lenovo (Singapore) PTE Ltd. v. Comptroller General of Patents, 2020 EWHC 1706 (Pat) has also clarified that it is important to look at the underlying technical contribution and the effect the invention has in the real world. The UK Patents Court while examining the manner of making contactless payments through multiple credit cards and obviating the need for pushing a button when a wallet consisting of the multiple cards is placed on the card reader, held that even a method for automatic handling at the point-of-sale devices is a technical contribution. The UK Patents Court examined the effect of invention in the real world i.e., the need for pressing a button being eliminated. This feature of the invention, which was the automatic choosing of the card for making the payment without the physical step was held to be technical in nature. Significantly, the improvement in the user experience was held as a technical effect and the court found that “The alleged technical effect in this case does not involve implementing a button press, it is [sic] involves getting rid of it… Therefore the user no longer needs to actively press a button… I wondered if the point being made was that since adding a button press is trivial, so too is taking it away, however that is not what the decision says, and much more importantly that logic would be flawed. Just because adding something is a minor step to take does not mean that taking it away is equally minor.”
However, GUIs that are merely aesthetic in nature, or directed towards a business method, or do not have a technical contribution or a significant effect in the real world may not pass the test of patentability. The Delhi High Court, in the case of Oneempower Pte Ltd. Vs Controller of Patents and Designs, refused the patent application directed towards a business method by stating “The key focus of subject invention is a business strategy, namely, improving customer experience by streamlining the process of reward redemption. As such, it falls within the definition of a ‘business method’ under section 3(k) of the Patents Act, and is consequently non-patentable.”
The Indian position on patentability of GUI depends on whether its improved user experience arises from underlying technical advancements in computer architecture. If such advancements, at various levels of the computer architecture, demonstrably enhance user interaction, the GUI may be deemed patentable. However, GUI that merely enhances the appearance or aesthetics may not meet the requirements of patentability.